Melissa McGill, “Constellation”

Bannerman’s Island, New York

The thing about a constellation when it’s close up is that it changes. There’s parallax. The far-off stars of the Big Dipper, Scorpio, or Cygnus are fixed points relative to one another, and the constellations themselves are fixed in relation to one another too. They’re pictures. 

Not so Melissa McGill’s work of seventeen new stars summoned to earth on a rocky becastled outcrop in the Hudson River known as Pollepel, or Bannerman’s, Island. This “Constellation”—the installation’s name—is a living, gently whirling cluster whose points speak to one another at varying distances, and to the fixed stars above, and to their own rippling reflections on the river, and to the crenelations and towers from which they rise. Moment by moment, they have something slightly different to say. 

Storm King Adventure Tours, the official kayaking tour company for the project (and whose principals were its lighting design consultants) offered my wife and me a trip to see Constellation during a press preview, from down low on the water, while the artist served as docent for the media aboard a nearby tour boat. We accepted and joined a few others on a Friday evening that seemed manufactured for the purpose. 

The Hudson here, at the south end of Newburgh Bay, is a mile and a half wide; the trip from the small cove at Donahue Park in Cornwall-on-Hudson, on the western shore, is most of that. It took about twenty minutes. We approached just before sunset over a mild chop, feeling a gentle breeze from the north that slowly died as we advanced. Someone asked a guide about the depth. South of us, he said, near West Point, it was 180 feet deep, the deepest part of the river. He didn’t want to say how deep it was where we were. It was deep enough. (Later I checked. It was 60 feet deep. We were all thinking about the apparent murder, this spring, of a kayaker in this spot.) The water that poured from the paddle blades was warm.

The SKAT guide filled us in as we reached the island’s leeward side, gesturing up at the former residence, one corner of the great half-folly, half-bomb that was Bannerman’s Arsenal. It was a 1901 storehouse for Spanish-American War surplus weaponry and explosives, built by a Scot who was prohibited from packing the dangerous stuff into Brooklyn or Manhattan warehouses. He gave it battlements and towers and arches, apparently without aid of an architect, and fudged the lines, lending it false perspective so that it would appear larger—a three-dimensional trompe-l'œil as advertisement for those on shore. We were told that he invited despots, would-be tyrants and revolutionaries from southerly climes to come lob shells at nearby Sugarloaf and Storm King, and sent them off with howitzers to work their violence on their own lands. In 1920 his warehouse blew up and more of it burned in 1969. Its picturesque remains have been crumbling since.

Melissa McGill is not the first to be taken by these ruins. Wikipedia helpfully offers a compendium of magical and mysterious purposes to which these stones have been set. McGill is, however, the first since Bannerman to orchestrate a major construction on Pollepel, raising 17 poles, the tallest of them 80 feet in height, at carefully plotted points around the arsenal. They’re anchored in bedrock, and each is tipped with a three-light cluster of LEDs and surrounded by a glass globe to precisely mimic the color temperature of the heavenly stars. A small solar array charges the 12-volt battery that gives power to the lights. A sensor advises them to come to life in sequence as night falls.  

There’s a viewing platform anchored to another rock outcrop on the Hudson’s east shore, looking across to the island, but from there nothing moves. A stationary observer looks over a narrow ribbon of water at a stationary installation. No, it’s on the water, or from Route 9D, or from the Metro North tracks, that things get moving. 

By the time we’d paddled around the small island to its north side, the sun had set and a long twilight stretched across the river. The lights of Newburgh lined its west shore, woods and train tracks its east. The Bay and the Island lie north of the point where the river bisects the Hudson Highlands, a reach between Breakneck Ridge and Storm King Mountain called the North-Gate, or the Wind-Gate, or the Worragut, so the horizons to south and east were hills. A waxing crescent moon was up over Storm King, and Venus and Jupiter, close together in the sun’s afterglow, grew brighter. On this side of the island the most intact of the arsenal’s crumbling walls remains, propped up by 21st-century hardware, the facility’s name in three-foot high capitals across it.  We paused to drift while the press boat circled farther out in the river, timing its circuit to nightfall. Our flotilla passed cookies from kayak to kayak.

And as we watched, precisely synchronized to the early glimmer of the first stars appearing overhead, one of the lights kindled. We oohed. And another, and more, each of them appearing subtly, very like the manner of the stars that emerged in the sky above—not there one moment, and then, your eyes flick away and back, and there. Some were on isolated poles in the woods; some rose directly from parapets; some sat nearly level with the top of the walls. We were told that from some angles they suggested the absent lines of now-ruined fortifications, from others, a terrestrial version of the Milky Way.  

It took about fifteen minutes for them all to light, and the poles, which were silhouetted against the sky, began to blend into the darkening background. We lingered there, trying to focus cameras, the pale lights set off against the background of a distant cloud-mountain that retained some of the sun, then we paddled around again to the east side, to stay out of the media cruise’s shots. 

And in that short paddle, the motion became apparent. It’s hard to imagine that McGill researched the positions of Jupiter and Venus at dusk on launch day when she plotted the position of her lights many months ago, but two of them precisely mirrored the 45-degree angle and distance that separated those two points in the sky, until they seemed so intentionally referential that it provoked a little gasp of applause. And then as we moved slowly through the water, heads swiveled to catch each shift, the stars aligned, showed us where perhaps old walls used to stand, and where the rock of the island itself rose and fell, reflecting a hard surface that resisted glaciation. The stones of Pollepel, like the Highlands themselves, are the oldest in New York State, more than a billion years old, products of the Grenville Orogeny. They are the earthiest of earth, and yet here their peaks and contours reached up to touch points of light in space. 

It grew darker. As we had been promised, the poles disappeared in the night, and then we were looking, indeed, at a new Constellation, but not at just one, no; with each dip of the blade a new star field was revealed, a new bridge to the sky—contiguous with Venus and with Jupiter above it—arose. Some of the lights shone between us and a castle wall, set off against pure black; others lay behind, or above, until Bannerman’s original tromp was retromped and then tromped again; until space, sky, tree, cloud, rock, castle and river were whispering to one another about just who was real, here, and who was not, and what exactly counts as light pollution, when the lights of Newburgh behind the island were just enough to silhouette one tower so that it could appropriately frame its own set of stars. 

We lingered a bit, but the business of being out on the river in full darkness meant we couldn’t stay long. Headlamps on, we began the return crossing under Scorpio and Cygnus and the moon, discarding metaphorical considerations because our arms were tired. But our flotilla paused mid-river when a glittering spray of fireworks launched from New Windsor, and again when they were emphatically answered by a full-throated display over Dutchess Stadium, signaling defeat (statistically) for the Renegades

Seeing McGill’s work from earth would be, perhaps, less than seeing it from the river itself. But stasis has its own power and one day in the next two years I will likely perch on that eastern platform to watch again as the lights come up after sunset, to see what Constellation tells me about permanence and place, when it has already offered me new ways to look at light and movement. 

—Bill Braine